Flower garden or meadow?

My brother was by training and vocation a scientist. So naturally when he set about to grow a patch of wildflowers at his country house in Maine, he went high tech. Well, medium tech anyway. He threw some seeds on the ground, then drove his pickup truck over them to embed them in the soil. I didn’t see the result. Might have been pretty good. Might not have been.

There are lots of ways to start and maintain a wildflower patch, and I conclude after 18 years of being a wildflower farmer and going at it every which way, that one way works about as well as another.

Here’s another thing I know about growing wildflowers. No matter how you go about it, a question with important arises unbidden.

When Ann complained to our friend Joe about the overabundance of milkweed in our patch, he said, “Ann, it’s a meadow.” The implication was that therefore we shouldn’t expect to control what happens there. But our plot is not a true meadow; it’s only meadow-like in that some plants we don’t want, such as milkweed, sneak in and grow voluntarily. In my view, a real meadow is something that occurs without any deliberate intervention by humans.

Every year since 2001, Ann and I have intervened in the plant life on the 30-foot-by-60-foot slope at the far edge of the front yard of the former Carmelite Monastery where we live. We’ve cultivated the growth of so-called wildflowers where before nothing more flower-like than scruffy grass and dandelions had been. So, those things we were trying to grow in our front yard were not wild flowers. Texas bluebonnets and Indian paint brush are wild flowers. They require nothing but to be left alone. The seeds can lie dormant through years of drought, then come to life beautifully after a good rain. No sir, wildflowers and wild flowers are as different as a flower bed is from a meadow.

The basics of growing wildflowers are deceptively simple. First, you decide whether to plant in fall just before the first frost or in spring just after the last frost. Then, shortly before planting, you clear existing vegetation, loosen up the soil, embed seeds in the soil (by, for example, driving a pickup on them), keep the patch watered, and wait.

Though my brother would disagree, the right moment to plant is more likely to be discovered by folk wisdom, ceremony and incantations than by science and technology. Everyone knows (not believes, “knows”) that around here you don’t plant annuals until after Memorial Day. I once heard a more precise version of that rule. I think it was don’t plant until the first full moon after Memorial Day. Or maybe it was the first new moon. I don’t remember which. I haven’t yet turned up such a rule that applies particularly to wildflower planting, but it’s probably about the same as for annuals.

Another consideration: since the monastery was not desanctified after the nuns left, maybe finding the right date to plant is a job for a priest. Even if he couldn’t get the Almighty to reveal the best moment, he could at least see the seeds into the ground with prayer and blessing, like shrimp boats are blessed at the start of their season. Or maybe we should get some recovering hippies to sit around and do something with peyote and crystals.

Whatever the date, shortly before planting, existing vegetation has to removed. That shouldn’t be too hard. But “shouldn’t” has been missing in action in our case. First you go through with a weed whacker or lawnmower and take whatever is there down as low as you can. Then you rent a tiller. Anyone can operate a tiller. But since our plot is on a slope, a big tiller is required. Ones small enough for a person of normal strength to manage have two-stroke engines, which would be damaged if used on other then flat ground. Those with four-stroke engines are of a size and weight to make glad the hearts of masseuses and chiropractors. And even after the struggle is over, the plot is still thick with weedy tufts. Oh well. A few weeds among the blooms would give the carefully cultivated plot a natural look.

Space limitations do not permit me to indicate all the impediments and frustrations that go into growing a crop of wildflowers on a slope. Suffice it to say, there are many.

Consequently, to me it’s important to recognize the difference between wildflowers and wild flowers, between a flower bed and a meadow. Wildflowers cost a fair amount, and they are a lot of trouble, year after year. People should call things what they are.

On the other hand, I find myself yelling objections at the talking heads on television for their habitual use of either/or questions. Was Richard Nixon a crook or a statesman? Is America moving in the right direction or the wrong direction? Is that a flower bed or a meadow in my front yard? In most cases, the only defensible answer is both.î Or, if you prefer, the wiseacre response — yes.î

Paul Willcott publishes somewhat longer essays about once a month on his national award-winning blog at www.geezerblockhead.com.

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